The culture of competitions in architecture signals a creative future but, warns Sarah Ichioka, we must be careful this proliferation of ideas remains progressive to the profession
In the UK, as in other places still grappling with low-growth economies, a scarcity of work relative to the number of qualified architects has led many practices to devote more resources to entering design competitions, often with no guarantee of reward, even for proclaimed winners.
Many have argued that, historically, economic downturns provide the best conditions for new architectural ideas to emerge. It might follow that exercises in speculative design that have little likelihood of producing built work have great merit as catalysts to architecture’s evolving discourse. However, in my worryingly predictable private conversations with studio heads anxious about making payroll next month if they don’t land that big competition soon − one that will generate real work − this argument doesn’t go far.
Alongside the lure of competitions, recent years have seen the proliferation of prizes for architecture and urbanism as well as a growing number of festivals of architecture and design. These latter activities ostensibly seek to celebrate architectural ideas and projects, and − at their best − identify and reward excellence and raise client and consumer ambitions for architecture, but their underlying motivations and benefits are divergent, and some betray ulterior motives − profit, brand promotion, place-marketing, etc.
The Architecture Foundation has chosen this moment − of expanded opportunities for architecture to gain exposure through mediatised competitions, awards and biennales, alongside a reduced landscape of opportunity in the sense of traditional architectural work − to look critically at certain mechanisms of architectural culture, and to ask the profession, its clients and the public, how these systems, which aim to generate good architecture and champion new ideas, can and should be improved.
We are implicated as an institution in all three of the meta-systems we seek to scrutinise: competitions, awards and festivals, so there is an aspect of self-improvement (with a seasoning of self-critique) in our organising the series. We also intend that the debates contribute to the current strategic review of national architectural policy.
The series, ‘And the winner is?’, has the AR as media partner. The first event in March, Competitive Advantages?, set sparks flying, with keynote speaker Jeremy Till accusing clients, competition organisers, and architects of perpetuating an exploitative and wasteful system that privileges image over discourse, norms over progress. The event set British commentators in dialogue with peers from European countries whose competition systems are perceived more positively.
What emerged was a rather complex picture of multiple systems and actors − some effective at crafting resilient briefs, supporting clients to raise their game, identifying design talent, and producing good architecture; others mired in bureaucracy and a stifling culture of risk-averse consultants.
The art world has seen the rise of a curatorial class and a complex ecosystem of value creation and evaluation several steps removed from the production of the art itself. As economies seek new means of validation and employment for their ‘creative classes’ and as more young people choose to study architecture than there are traditional architectural jobs available, it is perhaps unsurprising that architecture too has seen a general proliferation of attendant meta-cultures and professional services. The question remains: how can we use this to our advantage, producing better buildings and spaces, rather than just more cultural noise?